Ruta Smith

Six years ago, City Paper food writers and editors decided to revamp the way we categorized restaurants in our bi-annual Dish dining guide, introducing for the first time the “Top 50” category.

Up until then, we bucketed restaurants primarily by price, with the tacit assumption that the “Upscale Fine Dining” places, with their big-ticket entrées and brigades of servers and sommeliers, were naturally the best restaurants in town. At the low end of the scale, you might duck into a “Cheap Eats” spot for a quick lunch or a greasy fix after a hard night out, but no diner of discernment would seriously recommend such common fare to a visitor from out of town.

By 2014, though, it was clear that price was grossly inadequate as a proxy for quality. Chefs were discarding fine dining trappings to focus on heirloom ingredients and traditional Southern preparations. Neighborhood joints were upping their burger, taco, and pizza games, and a parade of flavors from around the globe were inspiring an entirely new category of serious food in casual settings.

So we kicked “Cheap Eats” to the curb, merging the pizza joints and hot dog stands into the Neighborhood Favorites, and created a separate category for those rare establishments — upscale or downhome, expensive or cheap — that stood out as the Top 50 in town.

Recent years have only continued to blur high and low. For this issue, the CP team took a step back and scrutinized our former Top 50 selections. We revisited the incumbents to make sure they weren’t getting stale. In a slew of shared documents and days-long email threads, we debated which old timers had slipped and which newcomers might be worthy replacements.

As we worked through the list, we concluded that the same criteria formulated in 2014 still works today. Be it the swankiest big-night splurge or a traditional home-cooking joint, is it a great place to eat? Would you tell a visitor to Charleston that this place shouldn’t be missed? Would you recommend it without qualification to friends or family members who love to eat well? We didn’t always agree on the answers, but they were still the right questions to ask.

Some impressive newcomers are making their first appearances. Delaney Oyster House, Estadio, Maison, and Jackrabbit Filly all opened in 2019, and each is not just an outstanding restaurant but an apt reflection of Charleston’s evolving culinary scene. They bring fresh new approaches to established genres — oyster house, tapas bar, French bistro, Chinese-American restaurant. They apply Charleston’s distinctive passion for fresh local ingredients and intense flavors, and deliver their offerings with stylish flair.

All told, Charleston’s Top 50 offers a diverse and impressive array of dining options. High-end steakhouses and chefs’ tasting menus appear side by side with taco joints and seafood shacks. Slow-smoked barbecue and old Geechee favorites mingle with bold new flavors from around the globe. Roll them all together, and 2020 is a very good time to be eating in the Holy City.

View our Top 50 restaurants